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Robert Edric: In Desolate Heaven

Another World War 1 novel and, like many of its contemporaries, a very fine one it is too. The smell of death pervades the whole novel as Edric paints a brutal portrait of a small Swiss spa just after the War where a small group of people is recovering from their injuries (mental and physical) or simply awaiting their fate. The heroine is Elizabeth. Her brother, Robert, was in the RAF and was killed in the War. She is taking care of her sister-in-law, Mary, who, after the death of Robert, seems to have lost her will to live and actually tries to starve herself to death.

There are two other key characters – Jameson and Hunter – who both fought in the war. Hunter is facing a court-martial but it is currently undergoing treatment for a breakdown (the two events are related as we gradually learn). Jameson is a more mysterious character. He seems to have access to most parts of the town and knows most people, though he is certainly not liked by the local bigwigs. He also has some business in town, apparently associated with book-dealing, though we eventually find out that he and his colleague are also running a sleazy pornographic business. The contempt of the local hotel owners (though they are dependent on the trade) and the ambiguous feelings of the nuns at the nearby convent-hospital add to the atmosphere.

What Edric manages to convey so well is the horror of the War, without showing actual battle scenes (which are mentioned but only in passing) by showing the results of the war. The results include the obvious physical ones – men without limbs, blind, suffering from numerous ailments but also, more poignantly, the mental ones – people losing their will to live, the feeling of guilt, the withdrawal from human society, the lack of any sexual or emotional feeling. Sex, despite a few feeble attempts between Elizabeth and Jameson, is seen as pornographic – sordid, involving money and often for control. Indeed, the view of sex in this book reminded me very much of the sex portrayed in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Peeping Tom.

Edric also gives us a glimpse of the future – the “new” European is portrayed with undisguised contempt while the locals perspicaciously talk about the current period (i.e. 1919) as between the wars. There is more, much more, to this novel but it is the smell of death you will remember.

Publishing history

First published 1997 by Duckworth